This July 4th, like many Americans, Eric and Jean Barnes of Bethel were hosting a family BBQ at their home. Unlike most Americans though, their BBQ included a very special surprise. While in the middle of hosting their guests, their son, Andrew asked them to leave for a minute to join him in another room. When they did, Andrew closed the door and put his phone on speakerphone so they could all hear his older brother, MLB Boston Red Sox’s star relief pitcher, Matt Barnes. Matt had good news to share with them, but they couldn’t tell anyone else until it was announced on ESPN later that day. Matt was calling to share that he had been chosen to be on the MLB All-Star team - a dream come true for Matt, who grew up in Bethel and graduated from Bethel High School in 2008. He is having his best year ever with the Red Sox and is now one of the best closers in the league. In fact, on July 11th he signed a two-year contract extension that includes a club option for 2024.
Suffice it to say, it’s been a great July for Matt Barnes.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with his parents and discussing Matt’s rise to celebrity status, and what this means to them. Eric and Jean both grew up in NY. Sports was not a big part of either of their childhoods, although Eric shared he was a huge Mets fan growing up. The following are excerpts from our discussion:
Eric: I grew up a Mets fan. I was really the only person in my family interested in sports frankly. I had 3 older brothers who weren’t really interested until later in their lives. I don’t know why I got the bug but I did like in the early 70s when the Mets were really good.
Hannah: Did both your sons, AJ (Andrew) and Matt, play other sports as well?
Eric: They both played baseball and basketball for a period of time for the middle school. Matt played all through high school. AJ played tennis in high school.
Hannah: Did you coach them formally? Informally? I’d love to hear playing in the yard stories.
Eric: We introduced them to it, they both showed an interest and so we just went with it. Like with any other child who shows an interest in something, you want to support them in whatever it might be. I coached both of them during youth baseball. With Matt, I always coached with George Rose. George and I coached baseball together for 6 years and he coached Matt for many years in basketball both Park & Rec and high school.
Hannah: When did you start seeing a talent in Matt?
Eric: That’s hard to say. It’s funny; he did an interview a couple weeks ago where he said he was never the best player on his team growing up, probably until he was a senior in high school. He always had a passion for the game. He always had an aptitude and he just kept working hard at it.
Hannah: One of the interviews I watched was when he said that the motto in your family was about hard work and luck.
Eric: The harder you work, the luckier you are. Something like that. *laughs*
Hannah: What was it like in your house before a really big game at Mitchell Park in Bethel?
Jean: Nothing specific, it was just, ‘Get ready and get out of the house to get there on time!’ They both played sports so there was a lot of running, especially when Matt got into AAU ball. We were lucky AJ was willing to tag along until he got much older. It was a family event because AJ is 4 years younger so we always all went together.
Hannah: In terms of sacrifice as a family, were there any sacrifices you had to make that allowed Matt to be where he is now?
Eric: Yeah, absolutely. There were plenty of weekends where we were driving to and from a place on a Saturday and a Sunday or traveling to another city for a weekend.
Jean: And you know the one thing I was saying the other day is that we have seen a lot of beautiful cities across America through baseball.
Hannah: And I am sure you have met a lot of people too.
Eric: The places aren’t necessarily vacation destinations. *laughs* Like Omaha, NE or Louisville, KY.
Jean: Great places though!
Hannah: That’s great; you get to see a different part of America. Did Matt always want to go for it with baseball or when did that happen?
Eric: Um, again, it’s really hard to pinpoint. I don’t know. I do remember one evening we were having dinner together and we talked to both kids about gifts. Everybody has a gift that God gives them and, you know, it’s up to them to figure out if they want to pursue that, use that, how to use it, etc. And you know Matt’s gift is that he has a very live arm.
Jean: High school right?
Eric: Yeah! Maybe a little bit before that. He has always had a live arm; it’s just how do you harness it?
Hannah: You didn’t grow up in a sports family. How did you both know what to do and how to put him in front of the right people to get him to harness that?
Eric: I think we got lucky! I’m going to try to give the abridged version of this story. We had just finished playing in the U-15 state tournament, I think in Hartford. Somewhere up that way. And that weekend we were going on vacation in Cape May, NJ. It was kind of an annual destination for the broader family and some guy, some random guy saw Matt had a Bethel Baseball shirt on and he was from the New Haven area. And he said, “Hey, you know you’re tall and you play baseball. Do you want to get in touch with the CT Blue Jays?” And so long story short…I took down the Sports Academy number and the next spring I asked Matt if he was interested in playing for that team. He said yes. I called down there, was introduced. I met one of the owner/coaches, Pat Hall, and he selected Matt to play on his team. The organization he played for over the next 3 years was Team Connecticut and CT Blue Jays. The next year he played for two other coaches. Interestingly, we saw Pat Hall when we went to the All Star game in Denver last week. He met Matt when he was 15 and they’re still close. And the other coach, one of the other two coaches that he played for the following year…
Jean: Coach Zabroski
Eric: The first year was Pat Hall and the next 2 years were Coaches Zabroski and McGuire.
Hannah: Three coaches.
Eric: Three AAU coaches - they all went to Matt and Chelsea’s wedding. He’s very close with them all. We just got lucky that this guy ran into us and offered us that information because we would have never known about it…He got really lucky. And they’re all terrific coaches- really, really good. All about the kids. All about development. Teaching them to play the game the right way. Helping them…just an extension of things we try to teach kids as parents; right from wrong, that kind of stuff. Pat is now the pitching coach at Central CT University. Pete Zabroski recently retired, so he has kind of hung up his spikes. But he played baseball in college with Notre Dame, was a pitcher, and was a coach for years and years and years. Coach McGuire was a pitcher at U Miami and he has been coaching for years and years also. He’s still coaching now, in fact, I think his team just won some tournament over the 4th of July.
Jean: When the Red Sox just played Tampa, Coach Zabroski came over and stayed at the same hotel with us and went to the games with us.
Hannah: Was there anything about Bethel as a community that helped Matt get to where he is today?
Jean: I think the Park and Rec Programs and Bethel Baseball are awesome! Are just awesome! I think they do a great job. I think Park and Rec tries to make everything all-inclusive for anybody who is interested whether it’s the arts or sports. I think the town has a great Park and Rec program.
Eric: Yeah and I think the size of the town is good too because it’s big enough to create opportunities but small enough where it’s literally a community.
Hannah: So many examples of that. What is your favorite memory of Matt’s Bethel baseball years?
Eric: I got it. Go ahead. You go (to Jean)
Jean: I can’t pinpoint one! You coached him so…
Eric: Probably the two that stand out for me are when he pitched a no-hitter against Redding. Another one was when he pitched a complete-game shutout against New Milford with 17 strikeouts and it was a 1-0 game and he scored the only run.
Jean: Oh yeah I forgot about that!
Eric: He tripled and came home, I don’t remember how. Somebody drove him in…[Also], there was a rival team from Southern Fairfield County who had a really, really good pitcher and Matt faced him twice two consecutive years and in both years it was a great game. And both years Matt beat him by like 1-0, 2-1, something like that.
Hannah: Are there any fun facts that aren’t related to baseball that might be interesting to readers about Matt and your family?
Jean: He eats a HUGEEE breakfast every single day. We go to the diner with him and he orders 2-3 meals. People think it’s for the whole table. So he has an omelet, toast, home fries, pancakes, fruit…he eats a HUGE breakfast. That is his favorite meal of the day. And he loves to cook it.
Hannah: Did you have to make him that every day before school?
Jean: No! Not before school. No, he ate Eggo waffles every day before school.
Eric: Just get them out the door!
Hannah: What perception did you as a family have of the MLB prior to Matt being drafted and how is it different from that now?
Eric: I guess two things stand out for me. One is I didn’t realize how close the players really are. It really is a fraternity. When you see Matt either with his teammates or former teammates or opponents—and not just Matt—everybody, it’s really interesting to watch how they all really…most of them really do get along. I think everybody we’ve met has been really nice. Really, really nice.
Jean: Yes! We really saw that at the All Star game. Because they’ll be rivals you know aside from the All Star game but at the All Star game everyone is like, “Hey great game! Hey nice to see ya!”
Eric: I guess the other thing that stands out for me on the other side is…it really is a business. So you get to see a little bit more the business side of it. So that was kind of new for me. And I knew it was a business obviously, but when you’re in it you see it a little bit more.
Hannah: In terms of the contracts and all of that or…?
Eric: Yeah, like Matt is the union rep for the Red Sox. He has been for the last three or four years, something like that. And you know just the amount of time that goes into calls and meetings with the player’s union, the leaders, and how that information is exchanged or how there are exchanges of communication with MLB and the player’s union. So, from that standpoint, I guess maybe I see it a little bit more because Matt is the union rep. In fact, I was speaking to him the other day and he said, “I gotta go, I got a union call in ten minutes.”
Hannah: When he was offered the two-year extension, how did he tell you? What was that like for you?
Jean: We knew a couple of days in advance that they had agreed on an extension, subject to a physical. The Red Sox announced it on Sunday morning, the 4th of July, and held a virtual press conference with Matt, Red Sox management, media members, and Matt’s immediate family.
Hannah: Amazing. What is all this like for you? I can’t even imagine.
Jean: You know, it’s awesome. We’re really excited. He’s worked so so hard and this year …everything that he’s worked so hard for and sacrificed for. I mean people don’t realize… they say, “Oh these ballplayers make a lot of money.” But you know what, he misses almost every wedding, he, you know, misses birthdays, he misses…
Jean: Unless it happens between the end of October and the beginning of January, you know, he’s not there. So, there’s a lot of sacrifice. And he works really hard and seems to get better every year. So, for him, this was, you know, a lot of hard work so, we’re very, very happy and excited for him and you know, he’s got a great support system. We all went to the All-Star game. Eric and I, Chelsea, his wife, his mother-in-law, AJ, and AJ’s girlfriend. So, we all went out so, it was wonderful.
Hannah: Wonderful. That must have been surreal.
Eric: Yeah, it was great! Really wonderful experience.
Jean: Yeah. Like Matt said the other day on an interview, he said, at the All-Star interview he said, ‘You aspire to reach certain goals in your career as a major league player’ and he said, ‘You know what? I got a World Series ring, check! All Star game, check!’
Hannah: What’s next? What’s another goal?
Jean: You know, he didn’t talk about that on that interview * both laugh *
Hannah: That’s a good question! If I ever get to talk to him, I’ll ask him that.
Eric: Maybe another World Series ring, maybe another All Star appearance.
Hannah: He seems humble.
Jean & Eric in perfect unison: He is!
Hannah: That’s a good thing. Because all of this could go to your head. Do you see any signs of that happening?
Eric: No. I was fortunate enough to at a young age become a CFO and people would say things and I’d tell the kids all the time, ‘That’s not who I am, that’s what I do.’ So, you know Matt is a lot the same way. Baseball is what he does, it’s not who he is. And the other thing I’d say is his agent, who has been with Matt his entire career—great guy—told Matt, I think this was before he got drafted or right after he got drafted, he said, ‘Matt, one of the hardest things to do in MLB is stay grounded while living in a fantasy world.’ So, he hears it from us, he hears it from his agent, he’s heard it from his wife.
Jean: Yeah, she’s amazing.
Eric: Yeah, so you know, everybody around him is pretty humble.
Hannah: Well, he’s clearly at the prime of his career now and doing really well. Boston is in first place in the American League - that’s so exciting! Is there anything else you want to add?
Jean: I remember when they went to the 10-year-old regional…that was in Tyngsborough MA. I still have the shirt. It was so tiny! *laughs*
Eric: It was nice. Danbury and Bethel were both selected to go to regionals. Rivals! And when they got up there, they were like best friends. All jumping around the pool, having a great time.
Jean: 10-year-olds with all their brothers and sisters.
It seems that Eric and Jean’s parenting style of focusing on hard work has served their family well. And maybe one of their mottos, “The harder you work, the luckier you are” is true for them. We closed our meeting with Eric sharing what he used to tell the kids when he was coaching Bethel Baseball at Mitchell Park:
“When I was a coach I would always tell the kids…first of all I don’t want anyone to get hurt, I want you to have fun, and I want you to, at the end of the season, want to come back and play again. Very simple. And maybe you’ll learn something about baseball along the way.”